Doing Physics with Computers


E. Mazur. 1988. “Doing Physics with Computers.” In Academic Computing, February: Pp. 18–21, 46-48.


Are the days of watching analog meters, taking notes in thick lab books and plotting data points on graph paper gone forever? Is research in the physical sciences becoming so complex that one can no longer do research without computers? A superficial survey of the current research in physics might lead one to give an affirmative answer to these questions. It is therefore interesting to note that the award of this year's Nobel Prize in physics to Alex Mller and Georg Bednorz for their work on superconductivity was hailed as a victory for relatively simple, small-scale research. No computer was needed to show that their compound of copper, oxygen, lanthanum and barium becomes superconducting. It shows that one can still make major breakthroughs with very simple means-without computers. Computers excel at performing tedious routine tasks. Physics research on the other hand seldom entails routine work. This holds true in particular in theoretical physics: indeed, no computer has yet been able to develop a new theory. Yet one cannot deny that the presence of computers in physics research and education increases every day. Physics papers on results that have been obtained with the help of computers abound, and some fields of physics would not even exist without computers. As a physicist, I will try to analyze in this article the impact of computers on physics. I will start by analyzing the current situation using examples from my own laboratory.